Study: Religion and Politics Affect Teen Birthrates More Than Sex Ed.

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 16, 2012 2 min read
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More comprehensive sexuality-education courses are correlated with slightly lower teenage birth rates—but that connection is not nearly as powerful as demographic, religious, and political factors in a student’s home state. Students in states that are more politically and religiously conservative have significantly higher birth rates than students in less-conservative states, according to new research published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Researchers from Washington University, St. Louis, and the University of California, Los Angeles used data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze the relationship between the number of births to girls between ages 15-17 from 1997-2005 and the components of states’ sexuality-education programs from 1996-2004 (the years that would have influenced the birth rates for ‘97-'05). The study focuses on 24 states that participated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Health Profiles, which document school health practices, for at least three years. Researchers found that states with more schools teaching sex-ed topics topics like condom use, HIV-infection prevention, and pregnancy prevention had slightly lower birth rates on average. For instance, a 1 percent increase in the number of sex-ed topics taught, as captured by a state’s School Health Profile, was associated with .6 fewer births per thousand.

But researchers also examined states’ poverty levels, racial demographics, violent crime rates, political and religious climates, and abortion policies, and found a much stronger connection between these factors and birth rates. Teen birth rates were higher in states with higher poverty. Likewise, states that were more religious (as determined by a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life) had higher birth rates, as did states that require parental consent for minors’ abortions. States with more whites had lower birth rates.

The social factors’ impacts are so strong, the researchers write, that “sexuality education was not associated with teen birth rates once religiosity measures and abortion policy were included in the analysis.”

Some other interesting tidbits:

  • Teen birthrates vary dramatically among states over the study period, from 9.7 live births per thousand girls in New Hampshire to 34.8 per thousand in Arkansas. This does not match up exactly with the comprehensiveness of the states’ sexuality-education programs: Alaska had the lowest average score on sexuality-education topics taught, and New York had the highest.
  • Improved HIV-infection prevention education in Alabama and Idaho seemed to be associated with lower birth rates over time.
  • More religious states are less likely to teach about condom use or condom efficacy.
  • Teen birthrates declined overall during the study period, from 25.6 births per thousand girls to 17.7 births per thousand, but there was an “unexplainable uptick” in adolescent birth rates between 2006-07, which this research does not seek to explain.

The researchers hypothesize that more conservative states may implement sexuality- education programs less fully. Alternately (or additionally), stricter abortion laws may make teen girls more likely to carry pregnancies to term in those states—the researchers analyzed live births, not pregnancy rates.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.